Hijacking is Buffer Overflow

September 2001

If you want to defend against hijackings, the problem you're trying to solve is one that programmers know well: the buffer overflow attack.

In a buffer overflow attack, someone gives a program much more data than it was expecting. The data is too long for the memory allocated for it and overflows into the memory occupied by the program itself. Suddenly the computer is running the attacker's code.

In a hijacking, the same thing happens to a plane. A plane has two separate spaces, one for the people carried on it, and one for the people who control it. A hijacking happens when passengers overflow into the cockpit from the cabin. What was cargo is now in control. By promoting themselves from data to code, hijackers on September 11th promoted box-cutters into 400,000 lb. incendiary bombs.

How do programmers solve the problem? There are two defenses, one that works and one that doesn't.

The defense that doesn't work is to check the data on the way in, to make sure it isn't longer than the memory set aside for it. The problem here is that you might forget to check, or do it incorrectly. And in fact this happens all the time. Everyone has known about buffer overflow for at least 15 years, and still software gets written that is vulnerable to it.

The defense that does work is to keep code and data in separate places. Then there is no way to compromise code by playing tricks with data. Garbage-collected languages like Perl and Lisp do this, and as a result are immune from buffer overflow attacks.

To programmers, at least, this would suggest that the most reliable way to prevent hijackings is to separate the cockpit from the cabin. You still need to watch who gets on the plane, to prevent people from simply blowing it up. But as long as you keep passengers out of the cockpit you can prevent anyone taking control of the plane.

It might be enough just to keep the cockpit door locked, and make it strong enough that to get through it you'd need something harder to smuggle onboard a plane than a box-cutter.

I'm sure the government is working on the problem. I just hope they understand as well as we do that it is never enough just to check what comes in.